President Donald Trump campaigned promising a return to “law and order.” Since taking office, he has attempted to fulfill that promise through policies that have been criticized as being thin on substance and out of touch with crime statistics. The president’s approach is misguided for another reason, however: he is targeting immigration as a driver of violent crime when it just might have the opposite effect.
Most recently, Trump’s secretary of homeland security issued memos providing for the expanded use of detention, wide-scale deportation and the immediate design and construction of a southern border wall — all in the name of public safety. To justify such measures, Trump and his supporters point to cases such as that of Kate Steinle, a young woman killed by an undocumented immigrant who already had been deported five times. While stories like Steinle’s are undeniably tragic, when used this way they obscure rather than illustrate the broader truth regarding immigrants and crime.
A trove of empirical research contradicts the notion that immigrants are the violent criminal horde Trump makes them out to be. In fact, studies consistently show that they commit significantly less crime than native-born Americans, and although the data are difficult to untangle, this appears to be true of both authorized and unauthorized immigrants. Even more, new findings suggest that immigrants may actually cause crime to decline in the areas where they live.
In a study published recently in the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, researchers analyzed Census Bureau and Federal Bureau of Investigation crime data across 200 metropolitan areas in every census year from 1970 to 2010. After controlling for age, level of unemployment, labor market structure and other factors, the researchers found a reduction of almost five violent crimes per 100,000 residents for every 1 percent increase in the foreign-born population. Analyses of city- and neighborhood-level data in “gateway” cities such as New York, Chicago, Miami and El Paso have similarly found that violent crime rates — homicide rates in particular — are not higher, but actually lower in areas with more immigrants. This might help explain how violent crime dropped 48 percent over the same period that our undocumented population grew from 3.5 million to 11.2 million.
One example of this effect in action is the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. Researchers with the Americas Society and Council of the Americas found that as white residents fled the neighborhood during the 1990s, the threat of depopulation and disinvestment was countered by an influx of immigrants, mostly from the Caribbean. Today, Canarsie has below-city average rates of poverty and housing vacancy, and its crime rate dropped from just above the city average in 1990 to 44 percent below the city average in 2010.
There are logical reasons immigrants would be less likely to commit crimes. They may represent those among their countrymen with the most motivation and the greatest ability to seek a better life abroad. They may also have the most to lose, especially if they entered illegally or have family back home counting on their income.
There are also explanations for why immigrants help bring down violent crime — apart from the fact that they commit less of it. New immigrants often repopulate hard-hit neighborhoods and increase the labor market opportunities of native-born workers. They also tend to create and strengthen social institutions in their neighborhoods, leading in turn to communities that are more stable and safer. This is the explanation scholars find most likely.
Investments that might help stabilize high-crime neighborhoods are exactly what Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth called for in response to Trump’s threat to send “the feds” into Chicago, a city the president almost always mentions when talking about violent crime. Trump seems unmoved, though. He is opting instead to crack down on cities including Chicago with raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and threats to withhold federal funding if they don't assist in immigration enforcement.
To be sure, it makes sense that the government would want to remove undocumented immigrants who are convicted of violent offenses out of concern for public safety. Trump’s recent orders explicitly depart from such prioritization, however, pushing resources into migrant expulsion and exclusion on a mass scale instead.
On day one of his presidency, Trump pledged to make America safe again. If he is serious about that work, the president should rethink his enormous investment in sealing off the country. It won’t make us any safer, and using federal dollars to strengthen local communities would be money much better spent.
Chiraag Bains is a senior fellow at Harvard Law School's Criminal Justice Policy Program and a Leadership in Government fellow with the Open Society Foundations. He was a federal prosecutor and senior official at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division from 2010 to 2017.